Woods for amblers and adventurers

Crossbills feed on pinecones in the conifer plantations

Crossbills feed on pinecones in the conifer plantations - Credit: Archant

Broxbourne and Bencroft woods come into their own as warm days bring life and colour. Countryside Management Service projects officer Jon Collins gives a guide for visitors

Longhorn cattle are used to keep glades clear

Longhorn cattle are used to keep glades clear - Credit: Archant

The arrival of warm weather in late spring and early summer brings vibrant colours, perfumed scents and the wild music of the countryside. For those wishing to immerse themselves in these splendours, there are few finer places to visit than the beautiful Broxbourne and Bencroft woods, part of Hertfordshire’s only National Nature Reserve.

Located a couple of miles to the west of Broxbourne, these ancient woodlands are managed by the Countryside Management Service on behalf of Hertfordshire County Council. With a multitude of footpaths and bridleways to explore, the woods are a great summer destination for an amble or a full day’s adventure.

While woodlands are of interest throughout the year, it is in summer that they are perhaps at their most enjoyable. Follow paths through leaf-dappled shade, along warm sheltered rides and out into sun-drenched glades and you will likely spot a variety of wildlife. Broxbourne and Bencroft woods are renowned for their populations of butterfly, including white admiral, silver-washed fritillary and the impressive purple emperor – rarely seen, as it spends most of its time high in the woodland canopy. Within the conifer plantations of Broxbourne Wood, you may be lucky enough to spot a crossbill feeding on pine cones or a woodcock in patches of dense undergrowth. If you hear a repeated ‘drumming’ noise, it may be one of the three native woodpecker species that are known to inhabit the woods.

Ponds and grassland

Wander through the grassy glades of Broxbourne Wood and you will discover a large, enclosed pond. While the buzzing activity of dragonflies and damselflies gives an indication of the pond’s popularity with the woodland wildlife, peer into the dark, orange-tinted waters and you may be lucky enough to spot one of the three species of native newt that live here, including the highly-protected great crested. The importance of this water habitat, and its vulnerability to invasive species, has led to the creation of a series of smaller ponds scattered through the woodland, to provide a stepping-stone wetland close to the newts’ terrestrial habitat.

The heath and acid grassland glades in Broxbourne Wood are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Over the past few years, they have been part of a continuing project to increase the area of these precious habitats. Tree felling has been carried out every second year with management to the resulting regrowth. The glades are grazed each summer by longhorn cattle, a traditional British breed that helps to keep the vegetation in check. These are docile creatures and should not discourage visitors from exploring the area.

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Sculpture and exploration

For new visitors to the woods, a good starting point is the Broxbourne Wood Sculpture Trail. This short circular walk through a conifer plantation has wide, flat surfaced paths and can be accessed from both (recently renovated) car parks. The entrances to the sculpture trail are framed by two fantastic new archways, carved by chainsaw-sculptor Dan Cordell using oak timber sourced from the woodland. Along the trail are a number of other carved sculptures, each reflecting an aspect of the woodland’s heritage. While some are easy to find, others, such as the majestic stag hidden in the trees on Icknield Way, may require a keen eye. An audio trail and leaflet provide more information about the sculptures (see below).

Elsewhere in the woods, improvements continue to be made to visitor access. Much of this work is carried out by our dedicated teams of volunteers, the wood wardens and a CMS Tuesday group. One of their major tasks has been the replacement of old, dilapidated sections of boardwalk with new, improved surfaces. If you happen to walk along one of these boardwalks, bear in mind that they have all been hand-built by volunteers. A further improvement has been the installation of new map-based entrance panels in the car parks. It is hoped that these signs will encourage visitors to discover different areas of the woodlands that they may not have previously explored.

Visit Broxbourne and Bencroft woods

A number of leaflets are available containing maps and details about walk routes, information on wildlife, history and conservation, and a guide to the sculpture trail. Leaflets and an audio trail can be downloaded from hertslink.org/cms/getactive/placestovisit/broxbournewoods